The singer-songwriter team of Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) have only been together five months, but already they have... been entirely unsuccessful. How very unlike the more famous duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, their idols, who they are hoping to emulate. Their agent (Jack Weston), who is almost as desperate as they are but labouring under fewer delusions, gets them a gig where they perform their own songs to stony silence from the audience, so he suggests they try covering other people's songs until they grow established. Alas, this goes down about as well as their own material, and soon Chuck is drowning his sorrows in a bar, although not alone as he would wish as Lyle has followed him in and sat at the other end of the room. Will they ever get their big break?
The comedy of embarrassment is a difficult area to get the hang of, as is the comedy of the deliberately bad: just how is the audience supposed to know that what they're seeing is intentionally poor quailty, and will they laugh if they do? Such was the problem facing the makers of Ishtar, one of the most notorious financial disasters in Hollywood history. Writer and director Elaine May had already shown her talent in the field of cringemaking laughs, and in truth for the first quarter of the film she's on familiar ground, showing confidence in setting up the unlikely pairing of Beatty and Hoffman as loveable losers. Of course, considering the two stars were taking home a well publicised five million dollars each, it might have been difficult to accept them in such roles.
Nevertheless, they do show initial promise as Lyle and Chuck (who likes to call himself Hawk, but tells Lyle that this is what women like to call him) reminisce over the short time they've spent together, utterly intent on making it big with their frankly terrible songs - actually written by May and Paul Williams, and the highlight of the film. Every time Beatty and Hoffman take to the stage, the story brightens, and they're convincing as a mediocre to excruciating act. Perhaps a little too convincing, as they seem the same offstage as well. After immersing themselves in their work, Lyle loses his wife, Chuck loses his girlfriend and both lose their savings, meaning they'll take any job in the business we call show. Their agent suggests either a lounge bar gig in Honduras or Morocco, and as the Morocco one pays better, that's where they go.
And that's when the laughs, such as they were, go as well. There's only one funny line after they arrive at their destination, and that's from the compere at the hotel introducing, "And now, from the team of Rogers and Clarke - Rogers!" Why is Lyle on his own? Because the heavy handed spy plot has intervened, and Chuck has become embroiled with freedom fighters from the neighbouring country of Ishtar represented by Isabelle Adjani, whose running gag is that she cries a lot of the time (maybe thinking of her hopes of an American career disappearing over the horizon?). Then Chuck is in the pay of the C.I.A. thanks to agent Charles Grodin while Lyle joins up with the rebels; for a team they spend too much time apart. Apparently this was meant to be a throwback to the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road movies, but nothing really gels here, although it is interesting that the C.I.A. are the bad guys when it emerges they want to kill our two heroes for the map they are unwittingly carrying. In recent years, it has become fashionable to give Ishtar another chance and reappraise it as unfairly maligned, but it really wasn't that good in the first place. Music by Dave Grusin.